Cabada’s challenge set CJ Albertson on his way to four marathon records in five months

Had it not been for a call from world class marathoner Fernando Cabada, 25-year-old CJ Albertson would most likely not be breaking records every time he laces up his running shoes for a marathon.

The Clovis Community College cross country coach had run four marathon since the Two Cities Marathon last November when he smashed the course record in 2 hours, 17 minutes, 40 seconds to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Qualifying Trials Feb. 29, 2020 in Atlanta.

Since then, he has broken the records at the Bakersfield Marathon (2:19:45.3) and the Modesto Marathon (2:16:45).

The Buchanan High School graduate then broke the world indoor marathon record on April 14 when he clocked 2:17:59.4 at The Armory in New York City. He ran on a banked, 200-meter track.

A month prior to the record-breaking attempt, Albertson had no intention of going to the race until his sister, who knew the indoor marathon race director mentioned it to him.

“Why not? I guess we’ll do it,” he recalled about taking the trip with his wife Chelsey, a nursing student and an accomplished middle distance runner.

He called up the promoter, lined up a hotel and got his wife into the women’s marathon as well.

“Let’s go to New York. Sounds like fun,” he recalled recently at a Starbucks near Woodward Park. “This race was really last minute. It was more just for fun. I’ve never been to New York, so it was a good excuse to go and travel with my wife.”

It’s doubtful all this would have happened without the intervention of Cabada, a fellow Buchanan grad and an elite marathoner.

When Albertson finished first at the 2018 Miguel Reyes 5K with a time of 14:42.1, Cabada suggested he think about running half marathons and marathons.

“You should start to train seriously again,” Cabada told him. “That’s a pretty good time.”

Albertson starred at Arizona State where he holds the school’s indoor 5k record (13:50.24).

After he graduated in 2017, Albertson wasn’t focused on running.

“I was already thinking about (training hard) anyway, but when a guy like that calls you and encourages you to do it, it was like, ‘OK, yeah. I’ll take this more seriously,” said Albertson.

He then began to train for the Two Cities Marathon.

Albertson was on his way to four marathon records in five months. He earned $3,000 for winning the indoor marathon, and an extra $4,000 for breaking the world record.

Q. Tell us about your relationship with Cabada.

A: “We talk. We don’t talk all the time. Whenever he’s in town we try to run together. He gives me advice, pushes me to do things. I think we’re fairly similar. I don’t know if you can say we’re stubborn but we do what works for us. We can talk with each other. I can definitely get ideas from him. We can bounce ideas off each other.

“Obviously he’s been all over the world, and ran in so many races and done it for so long. It’s good to hear from his experiences. I’ve also followed him for 5-6 years. I follow his training. Even if I haven’t necessarily asked for his advice, I’ve subconsciously been looking at what he’s been doing.”

Q. Did you have a time in mind for the indoor marathon?

A: “My goal was to win. Three guys in the field had run 2:13 for the marathon outdoors. The indoor marathon record was 2:19. I figured with those three guys in the race the race would be fast enough that whoever won would get the world record. No doubt in my mind that we’d run under 2:19. I was just going in and sit with the guys. I knew it was going to be fast enough. If I win at the end I get the record.”

Q. What’s it like running 26.2 miles on an indoor track?

A: “I think it is just a personality thing. For me it wasn’t hard at all. I like racing. It’s a race, and I’m not thinking about the laps, like ‘2 laps down, 209 to go.’ That’s not my thought process. I’m just running trying to stay relaxed for the first 20 miles, get through the next four miles which is kind of hard and the last two miles try to win it. To me it was like any other race.

“Actually it’s more fun because there is music the whole time, you can hear the announcer the whole time. You get your bottles and gels set up on a table that you get to pass by each lap so whenever you need it you have access to it. It was easy for me as far as the mental aspect goes; kind of relaxed. The first half of the race was relaxing. Second half was hard but I liked it.”

Q. What was your half-marathon time?

A: “Honestly I don’t even know my half marathon split. I wasn’t really paying attention. We had chips on our bibs so our times would pop up on the Jumbotron. I knew that about 39.6 or 39.8 (per lap) was the 2:19 pace, and the whole time we were under that pace. I knew we were good. I just didn’t worry about it.”

Q: What was the track like?

A: “It was a 200-meter, banked track. It’s so tight they bank them. You run on a slant as you turn, which helps keep your speed but your hips are higher, one foot higher than the other. You run one hour in one direction counterclockwise, then the other you switch and run clockwise.

“It was a little weird doing the turnaround and switching directions because you get so ingrained to like going in one way, like your brain is all confused.”

Q. How was the competition?

“We started with six in the group, then it slowly dwindled down to three. Us top three were together all the way through 23½ miles. For 18-23 miles I wasn’t feeling good at all. So I was just in third just trying to stay right on them. But I wasn’t feeling like I was going to win. You just go through patches of a marathon where you just don’t feel good. So I was just trying to hang on and just get through mile by mile. Around mile 23½, one of the guys kind of dropped off a little bit so it was just down to two people.

“Then a few laps later, I sensed he started to slow down and I started to feel good again. I was nervous about making a move too soon. Especially since I hadn’t been feeling too good. But I kind of went for it. I passed him and took the lead and made a move for the first time in the race. From there I built on the lead and was able to hold on.”

Q. You’ve admitted you’re competitive. What drives you?

“I like to see what I can do. It’s just fun. There’s something kind of something satisfying and relaxing, yet exciting about just running hard for a long time. I enjoy Sundays because it’s my long run days. I get to go out and run for a couple of hours. Push as hard as I can and it’s fun for me.

“Just being alone doing that too is also fun for me too. But then I like being in races and competing against people and trying to win. It’s exciting. The comraderie of the sport you pushing yourself and other guys are running as hard as they can. There’s something l like about it.”

Q. How much improvement is there in your marathon time?

A. “I really feel like I haven’t run a truly fast marathon yet. June 22 is Grandma’s Marathon, and that’s what I’m considering my marathon debut. Hopefully it will be a fast one. Traditionally that race has guys that will go 2:11 to 2:14. I think I can be in that range. When I’m running with a top pack and in a race like that. Hopefully I can be around there. I feel like I’m in 2:14 shape but I haven’t run that yet. So I want to at least run it so that I know I can.

“Then when the trials come around I can improve another couple of minutes and be in 2:12 shape. At least give me a good shot at being top 10 and if a miracle happens maybe top 3. That is the kind of improvement I’m looking for.”

Q. Do you train yourself?

A: “I’m coaching myself. I do a lot of research on the sport. I just don’t make up my training. I take things I’ve learned from other coaches. Do what other top elite marathoners do and what their coaches say. I figure out what works for me, what I like doing, what’s enjoyable for me. So I basically take all the principles that I’ve learned from what other people do and what works for other people and mold that into what I feel works for me and most importantly what I enjoy doing.

“At this level where I’m at, I’m running well but I’m not a professional runner. So it has to be fun and enjoyable and fit into my life. What works best for me. I am coaching myself.”

Q. Do you want to get to the elite level?

A. “Yes. I don’t know if I’ll ever leave Fresno and go to join a training group, a professional training group. Just the way my personality is, I like a balanced life. I would probably just stay here and train here. Fresno-Clovis is just relaxing to me and there’s a great running atmosphere here. I feel comfortable here, and it’s a great part of what I need. Having a normal life, not one that’s too stressful. It allows me to train hard.

“I don’t think much would change, like moving to Colorado. I think I do better here being with my wife, coaching.”

Q. Have you gotten sponsors?

A. “I have a contract with Brooks. I get gear, like shoes. Later in year and for the Olympic trials, I’ll get jerseys that I’ll wear and special racing shoes. It’s been nice. When you’re running 120 miles a week you go through shoes fast. Before that, I was trying to get the cheapest shoes I could find, like clearance stuff.”